The Three Kinds of Editing

It's been a while since I put up a 'nuts and bolts' piece, so I thought I'd remedy that today. Writing about writing (for me) tends to fall into one of two camps: the more generalized / inspirational / philosophical pieces (Why do we write? Where does it come from?), and the pickier, more technical stuff (Dialogue tags that aren't 'said' - always bad? What's so wrong with adverbs?).

And, of course, there's always the issue of editing.

Editing isn't fun, but it's where bad writing becomes good, and good writing becomes great. Nobody gets it right first time. A composer doesn't just jot down a tune and leave it at that - he works over the whole thing again and again, finding the flaws and smoothing everything over. Insert whatever further analogy you'd prefer here; the crux is that after you write, you edit, or you're fooling yourself and putting out low quality work.

So, yes. Editing. Seems to me there are three different things you're looking for in editing. For ease, and to make it seem like what I'm saying is totally true and not at all made up by me, I'm going to call them Sweeping, Sifting, and Sticky

Let's have a look, shall we?


By sweeping edits, I mean just that (of course). It's a big picture, all-encompassing kind of thing. It's reading through the story, cover to cover, and seeing if the whole thing works as a single unit. It's a bird's eye view of the book, and the things it shows you are pace, narrative voice, tension, and conclusion.

Pace is easy. When writing, you take sections at a time, then stitch them together. Read the whole thing, as a sweeping edit, and you might be surprised. Does hardly anything actually happen for the first 200 pages, and then everything important in the last five? Or were you so excited when you started that you swept through the opening and the character introductions, and now they seem rushed and too thin?

Narrative voice here means checking for consistency. A novel of more than 30-40,000 words means you probably wrote it over a couple of months, at least. Things chance. The last chapters especially, where you've gotten comfortable with the voice you're in and know how it should sound, can end up very different to the more hesitant opening lines. Seeping through. Does it morph and change? Sometimes that's OK, if the plot requires it. Does it seem odd? Edit.

Tension goes along with pace. Something needs that happen that's not in the final chapter to keep people interested - this is the hook that agents and editors want. Except there has to be more than one in an entire book. Are enough things happening for people to be invested right through to the end - remembering, of course, that unlike you, they don't know there's a satisfying ending coming, and they need to inspiration to continue.

Conclusion? Well, it's the end. It's the end of all major things, though - not just one. Have all the questions you raise throughout the entire book been answered? Are the characters all accounted for? You'd be amazed how easy it it to completely forget about Stanley, the lovable but haunted postman, who you had wander into the woods in chapter five and forgot about. Readers probably won't forget. Where did he go? Conclude!


We're coming down from our bird's eye view now to look at what actually happens per page. It's time to take narration, dialogue, exposition, etc., and see how your writing actually holds up. Look for clunky phrasing, speech that would never sound natural if it were actually spoken, word usage, and paragraph breaks. Particular turns of phrase that seem so right, so genius in the early hours of the morning, on your fourth coffee and your ninth whisky, may shock you into a rude awakening when you read them a few months later. Did you write that? Really? Why? Kill it.

Speech is a hard one. Dialogue has to be natural enough that people don't think it sounds forced or robotic, but filled with meaning, and not just filler, or editors themselves will wonder why it's there. Try reading it out loud, if you don't feel silly. Make sure you didn't use characters names too often - in real life conversation, how often do you use friends' names when you're addressing them? And remember that people rarely get through three or four sentences without someone interrupting. It's not rude - it's how conversation flows. Character who get to monologue in a book are being too forceful and it's your job as much as other characters' to cut them down a bit.

Sifting edits is a good time to make sure you're not either using the same word over and over, or using words that are a tad incongruous in their setting. I have no problem with adverbs - some do - but there still has to be a limit before the reader gives up and drowns, lost to despair. Make sure words work for you; the right one, in the right place, at the right time.  After this, you can look at things like paragraphs, chapter breaks, etc. The book should flow, with changing scenes and locations easy to follow.


Not the 'I dropped my jam sandwich on my manuscript' kind - though that would need dealing with. No, this is the least fun of them all, sadly. It's punctuation, grammar, spelling, consistency checking, and fact checking.   Ones where you need to get stuck in.

Go through your book with a fine tooth come, and find those tiny, annoying things, and fix 'em. The good news here is that there is a right and a wrong answer. Unlike voice, or tension, where you need to feel it, and treat it as art, these sticky edits are objectively correct or incorrect. Commas work a certain way. Colons do, too. If you're using ' or " to mark speech, be consistent. Don't change halfway through. Ditto place names, or the weather. If you start the novel in winter, forget that, and have a character in the next scene in shorts, you've slipped up. If they need to travel to London, hop on the train, and it takes half an hour from Edinburgh, you've slipped up. (Some would say if you're writing about Britain and the trains work at all, you've slipped up, but let's not go there right now...)

Fact checking's on you, too. Is the capital of Portugal really Barcelona? Seems suspect. Can you really buy a house in cash? Would that will have been publicly available the day after she died? These things can matter. Things that happen unrealistically only for the sake of plot - because the plot needs them to, with no discussion about it - can be a mark of lazy plotting. Lazy writing isn't worth people reading, a lot of the time. Make sure you world is complete and works within its own rules.

So, yes. Some ways of editing. Some will work for some writers, others won't. The key, though, is that writing gets better the more you polish it.

And who doesn't want better writing?



  1. I will take the Sweeping and the Sifting with a pinch of sugar, but you can kindly take the Sticky back to the kitchen as I don't care for the taste.

  2. I love editing. Every time another writer says something like "editing isn't fun", a punctuation fairy dies (and I feel even more alone than the average writer!). That aside... someone told me that his tutor told him (keep up) that "the good writing comes in the third or fourth draft". That's been a source of great comfort to me through many a first draft, sweep and sift!

    1. Ha! I like what editing does, and I am a bit of a fan of getting through tricky grammar / punctuation problems, but I am NOT a fan of making a UK ms. into a US version - you have to change every single ' used for speech into ". Tedious indeedy.

    2. There's some sort of quick way of doing that, isn't there? You have to do something clever with the "find and replace" function that means it changes speech marks but not apostrophes. I'll see if I can remember where I read the tip...

  3. This is spectacular. I am going to make everyone read this post. Everyone. I sat down this morning to write a post about the editing I'm doing right now, and then I saw this post and wept. So I just linked back here. :D

    The worst Sticky Edit I've had in a while was discovering a critical fact that I swear I triple researched was 100% hokum. Luckily finding another (and definitely true) thing to replace it with actually worked out better for the story.